Eating well without being in Italy
All the New Year’s resolutions are in place. Now to implement them. There is a world of difference between intent and accomplishment isn’t there? Oñe of my personal goals is to become an even more aware eater this year. That means not just thinking before stuffing a biscotti in my mouth, but to question ingredients even more.
Frankly, it is pretty disheartening to realize how compromised our food system is. Price is no guarantee of quality. Reputable stores do not assure you products are really as advertised. It has become a major job and time eater just to grocery shop. And it is not all that much better in Italy these days. So what do we do?
Keeping it simple helps a little. Eat mostly fresh foods, the closer I can stay to traditional Italian cooking, especially cucina povera, (cooking of the poor) the better. It is not difficult to find good pasta in the U.S. Look for good quality, especially bronze cut pastas. Always check the dates. It should be about year ahead for dried pasta. I find that Berilla is one of the best selling dried pastas in Italy. Good enough for me. The artisanal pastas are great ( I often see them at TJ Maxx or World Market), and the different shapes are always fun, but I do not find them necessary for normal cooking. (And, again, check dates. Sometimes those are the oldest pastas).
With a well stocked pantry (in an upcoming post I will give a serious list to help) you can always cook a great, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes. Winter weather always makes me feel like Ribollita – the Tuscan bread soup. It makes a huge pot that tastes better every day. And, it makes me feel healthy.
Here’s a recipe I adapted to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix, and you can use Mauro’s Mix as well.
Ribollita – Tuscan Bread Soup
This is a traditional Tuscan soup that stays good till you finish it. Days or even a week and it holds up perfectly. Supposedly it should be thick enough for a spoon to stand straight if you put it in the pot. I adjusted the recipe to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix or Mauro’s Mix to ‘kick’ up the flavor a little more.
1 onion finely chopped
1 leek sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
1 head kale or nappa cabbage or regular cabbage
2 stalks celery sliced
1/2 cup parsley leaves chopped
2 carrots sliced
2 zucchini sliced
1 small bunch basil leaves torn
1 10-ounce can cannellini beans or kidney or borlotti
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tsp Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix (to taste – you might start out with only 1 tsp and adjust)
1 teaspoon salt preferably sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil extra virgin
1/2 pound stale Italian bread
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Sautè onion and leek in 1/4 cup olive oil several minutes until translucent.
Add a cup of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the kale, other vegetables, and basil to the onions and broth.
Cook for 20 min., covered. Add the beans and the rest of the broth. Add tomato paste, oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook for 90 minutes. At this point it should not be thick. It is best to let the soup rest a day in the refrigerator. It does deepen the flavor a lot.
Put the soup in a pot and layer the soup with thin slices of day old bread. It doesn’t make any difference how stale, or whether it’s torn or sliced, or what kind (although a good Italian or French is best). Heat while stirring until the bread breaks up and thickens the soup. You can add more broth or water if needed (but I haven’t ever needed any).
When the soup is done, turn off the heat and stir in 1/4 cup olive oil. Taste for salt. Serve with fresh grated cheese on top. It just gets better and better. This is the typical cucina povera of Italy.
It is unfortunate that we have to spend so much energy to decide what is good for us, but it is worth the time to protect your health.
I hate to continue to nag about olive oil, but it seems every week there is more evidence that so much of what is available is either mislabeled, overpriced or not even real olive oil. If you did not see the expose on “CBS 60 Minutes” recently, look for the video online. I know that much of the oils imported are not good, but I really didn’t think about the extent of mafia involvement. I do know they send containers of oil to the U.S. which is then bottled here. It can have sat waiting for customs in the heat for a month, which destroys most of the value of the extra virgin oil, but they still label and sell it as premium oil. I used to hear that Europeans did not send their best oils because Americans did not know the difference. Unfortunately, most Americans have still not tasted good olive oil.
A friend forwarded a newsletter from Brenda Watson, an author and expert on digestive health care. She had lists of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ olives oil. This was apparently originally from a Consumer Reports study. I won’t drag on about the ‘good’ list. The bottom line is always, read the label. It should have the per cent of acid in the oil, the date of harvest and best use by. And, it is important to know exactly where it comes from. In Italy, the city is always on the label, usually the type of olives and to qualify as extra virgin the acidity level must be below 0.8%. Don’t pay for any extra virgin not labeled as such.
The bad oils are a real disappointment. Those are most of the best known oils available in our stores. Do not think you are getting the health benefits of olive oil if you are using these:
Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Mazzola, Mezzetta, Newman’s Own, Safeway and some of the Whole Foods oils (other than their 365).
I bring back only olive oil that I can find at the frantoio (olive mill), where they follow the very stringent laws of Italy to produce their extra virgin oil. As often as possible I bring the olio nuovo (which is the first pressing of the beginning of the harvest). It is rarely sold in stores. And, the on-line sales run into the same problems of temperature variations and delays. And, their prices are higher than mine. I still have this season’s harvest oils so if you want to experience the true liquid gold of Italian Olive oil, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a note here.
In addition to olive oil, I still have honey from Sardinia and dried Porcini from my last trip. I am constantly searching out the finest, freshest products. My last stop on every trip is Campo dei Fiori in Rome to meet with Mauro Berardi. Mauro is generous with his time and they always pack me the freshest spice mixes. If you are out, get in touch. I usually have on hand his primary mixes. I can always shop for you when I am there for some of the more unusual products from him, just let me know what you want and I’ll get it for you.
I know that having to spend so much energy reading labels is a drag. I am finding that it makes such a difference in the flavor of what you cook though, it is well worth the extra time. Be healthy! Eat Italian.